Marathon Training for Beginners

Many of the athletes, a majority in fact, who ran the Olympic Marathon Trials two weeks ago in Los Angeles qualified for the event with a half marathon time. And for some the Olympic Trials was their marathon debut. In fact, two of our four On ZAP Endurance athletes that competed at the Trials were running their first ever marathon. While the vast majority of marathoners do get better after experiencing the distance a few times there are many runners who have turned in spectacular races on their first try. This success isn’t limited to the professional athletes qualifying for the Olympic Trials. But it is hinged on a marathon training for beginners program that focuses on proper preparation and avoiding some of the common mistakes beginner marathoners make.

Keep it Simple

The first part of putting together a successful marathon training plan for beginners is understanding that training for shorter distances isn’t all that different than training for a marathon. Many first time marathoners, from professionals to bucket list runners, think they need to double everything they do in training to run a marathon. That type of mindset is a sure fire way to run yourself into the ground and end up injured or completely burnt out by the time you make it to the start line. While there are a few important training and racing differences when it comes to the marathon compared to other distances, the basics remain the same.

Increase Recovery Time

Many professional athletes stretch their weeks out to 9 or 10 days instead of the traditional 7-day weeks in marathon training. This allows for a few more recovery runs in the week by spreading out the typical two workouts with a long run every 7 days to every 9-10 days. Doing a 20-mile long run in the middle of the week isn’t possible for most people, but the lesson of adding more easy recovery miles is an important one.

Try simplifying your week by having one weekly workout and a long run rather than two weekly workouts. When it comes to marathon training for beginners, leave the track shoes at home and focus on tempo, fartlek, and hill based workouts for your harder effort, workouts that should be the backbone of any time of training.

You won’t (or better not!) spend much time in a marathon running at 5k pace so there isn’t a need to do a lot of that in training. Eliminating the typical hard interval track day from the weekly schedule will allow you to recover better between your workout and long run and allow you to run a few more miles without being overly tired or increasing your risk of injury.

Increasing Volume

Running a little bit more mileage than normal will help, but don’t go crazy just because you read that Kara Goucher runs 115 miles a week during her marathon buildup. (She does, but it’s her job and it took her years and world-class talent to get to that point.) At a minimum for marathon training, you should aim to have some weeks in the 30-35 mile range.

And if you stick with only one harder workout a week and are looking to increase your miles, most people running 30-40 miles per week can safely add 20-30% to their weekly mileage. Those running 45-60 miles per week should look more at a 10-20% increase. When it comes to the marathon, especially for marathon training for beginners, think about reducing intensity while increasing volume.

For most people the increase in the long run will make up most of that difference even if you don’t change the rest of the week. But again, just because Kara Goucher runs weekly 20-mile long runs doesn’t mean you need to too. You do need to get in some longer runs, but many people tend to over do this aspect of training and run into problems before they even get to the start line. You should aim to get in 3-4 long runs of 30k or more within the final 10 weeks, or one every 2-3 weeks.

Fluid & Fuel

The longer long runs necessitate consuming both fluids and calories during the run, something you need to practice, as it is a crucial aspect of running the marathon. Don’t assume you’ll be able to do it just fine on race day. I’ve seen many runners struggle while taking in fluids and calories on the run, but with practice the body does get used to it. You should get in 100-110 calories every 40 minutes along with several ounces of fluid, and if it’s over 60 degrees drink twice as often as that.

If the marathon you’re targeting is on the roads then you need to get a significant portion of your long runs on pavement. Soft surface running is fantastic, but when it comes to the marathon you do need to get used to the harder surface during your long runs.

Patience on Race Day

Marathon training for beginners and tackling distance for the first time can be intimidating, and when it comes to race day the idea of racing 26.2 miles can seem daunting. So don’t think about racing for 26.2 miles. Think about going out for a long run with hundreds or thousands of new friends –how fun!

If you have a pace you think you can run for the distance on a good day aim to run the first 20 miles of the race at a pace 15-20 seconds per mile slower than that. Despite the immediacy any race presents, the goal for a first marathon should be to finish strong and get done feeling like you could have run a little faster if you hadn’t been so conservative the first 20 miles. That kind of race will allow you to learn the distance while minimizing the chance of having a tough last 10k that leaves you swearing off the marathon forever.

As a first time marathoner it is important to respect the distance, but at the same time embrace the challenge and know that with proper preparation you don’t need to be intimidated.

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By Ryan Warrenburg, ZAP Endurance